A Grammar of Zoulei, Southwest China

Southwest China

by Xia Li (Author) Jinfang Li (Author) Yongxian Luo (Author)
©2015 Others XVI, 421 Pages


Zoulei is an endangered language spoken by several hundred speakers in China’s Guizhou Province and adjacent areas. It is a variety of the Ahou dialect of the highly diverse Gelao group within the Tai-Kadai language family. Zoulei is a typical isolating and analytic language, basically monosyllabic, particularly with verbs, with a number of striking features that are generally not found in other members of the Tai-Kadai family. The language is also marked by a rich phoneme inventory and lexical tone, compounding, serial verb constructions and strong head-initial constituent order, as well as a vocabulary that may enhance our understanding of the early history and culture of this region.
In the opening chapters, the volume describes the social, cultural, and linguistic organization of this group, outlines the main points of Zoulei phonology, and presents an overview of the grammar. In succeeding chapters, it examines a number of grammatical topics in greater detail, including phrase and clause structure, verbal syntax, discourse particles, among others. The volume also includes a vocabulary and several texts recorded from village elders.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Authors
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements and Prefatory Note
  • Abbreviations
  • Tables, maps and diagrams
  • 1. Introduction
  • 1.1 The language and its speakers
  • 1.1.1 Population, internal division and distribution
  • 1.1.2 Linguistic type and affiliation
  • 1.2 What we know about Zoulei and Gelao
  • 1.2.1 Geographic setting
  • 1.2.2 Customs
  • 1.2.3 History
  • 1.3 Sociolinguistic situation
  • 1.4 Research scope, aims and objectives
  • 1.5 Theoretical framework and research methodology
  • 1.5.1 Theoretical framework
  • 1.5.2 Methodology
  • 1.6 Literature review
  • 1.7 Data sources
  • 1.8 Structure of the work
  • 2. The Sound System
  • 2.1 Initial consonants
  • 2.2 Finals
  • 2.3 Tones
  • 2.4 Tone sandhi
  • 2.4.1 Sandhi in the first syllable
  • 2.4.2 Tone change in the second syllable
  • 2.5 Phonotactics
  • 2.5.1 The Zoulei syllable
  • 2.5.2 Features of Zoulei syllables
  • 3. Word Formation and Morphological Processes
  • 3.1 Word classes
  • 3.2 Affixation
  • 3.2.1 Prefixation
  • 3.2.2 Suffixation
  • 3.2.3 Infix
  • 3.3 Lexical reduplication
  • 3.3.1 Reduplication of monosyllabic words
  • 3.3.2 Reduplication involving two similar phonological forms
  • 3.4 Tone alternation as a morpho-syntactic process
  • 3.5 Compounding
  • 3.5.1 Subordination
  • 3.5.2 Co-ordination
  • 3.5.3 Verb-complement
  • 3.5.4 Trisyllabic and/or multisyllabic compounds
  • 4. The Noun Phrase
  • 4.1 Nouns
  • 4.1.1 General nouns
  • 4.1.2 Proper nouns
  • 4.1.3 Time words
  • 4.1.4 Location/direction words
  • 4.1.5 Noun prefixes
  • 4.1.6 Numbers
  • 4.1.7 Reduplication of nouns
  • 4.1.8 The noun phrase
  • 4.1.9 Syntactic function of noun phrase
  • 4.2 Pronoun
  • 4.2.1 Personal pronouns
  • 4.2.2 Possessive Pronouns
  • 4.2.3 Syntactic function of personal pronouns
  • 4.2.4 Demonstrative pronouns
  • 4.3 Interrogative pronouns
  • 4.4 Numerals
  • 4.4.1 Cardinals
  • 4.4.2 Ordinal numbers
  • 4.4.3 Syntactic function of numerals
  • 4.5 Classifiers
  • 4.5.1 Noun classifiers
  • 4.5.2 Measure words derived from nouns or verbs
  • 4.5.3 Unit nouns as measures
  • 4.5.4 Sortal classifiers
  • 4.5.5 Verbal classifiers
  • 4.5.6 Pseudo classifiers
  • 4.5.7 Multi-function classifiers
  • 4.5.8 Morpho-syntactic functions of classifiers
  • 4.5.9 Constituent order of classifiers
  • 4.5.10 Syntactic behaviour of classifiers
  • 4.5.11 The general classifier təɯ33
  • 4.6 Possessive phrase and descriptive phrase
  • 4.6.1 Possessive phrase
  • 4.6.2 Descriptive phrase
  • 4.7 Nominalization and relative clause
  • 4.7.1 Nominalization
  • 4.7.2 Relative clause
  • 5. The Verb Phrase
  • 5.1 Verb subcategorization
  • 5.2 Syntactic function of the verb phrase
  • 5.2.1 As predicate or head of the predicate
  • 5.2.2 As object or complement of another verb
  • 5.2.3 Verb complement
  • 5.3 Negation
  • 5.4 A-Not-A questions
  • 5.5 Reduplication of verbs
  • 5.6 Descriptive suffix
  • 5.7 Existential and possessive verbs
  • 5.8 Copula verbs
  • 5.9 Modal auxiliary verbs
  • 5.10 Directional verbs
  • 5.11 Causative verbs
  • 5.12 Reciprocality
  • 5.13 Passive constructions
  • 5.14 Temporal-aspectual system
  • 5.14.1 Experiential
  • 5.14.2 Anterior
  • 5.14.3 Perfective
  • 5.14.4 Inchoative
  • 5.14.5 Attainment/Accomplishment
  • 5.14.6 Achievement
  • 5.14.7 Durative aspect
  • 5.14.8 Repetitive/iterative aspect
  • 5.14.9 Transient aspect
  • 5.14.10 Doing something casually or carelessly
  • 5.14.11 Immediate future
  • 5.14.12 Progressive
  • 6. Adjectives and Adverbs
  • 6.1 Characteristics of adjectives
  • 6.1.1 Descriptive suffixes
  • 6.1.2 Reduplication of adjectives
  • 6.2 Comparison
  • 6.2.1 Equality
  • 6.2.2 More than (superiority)
  • 6.2.3 Superlative
  • 6.3 Syntactic function of adjectives
  • 6.3.1 As attributive
  • 6.3.2 As Predicates
  • 6.3.3 As Verbal complement
  • 6.3.4 As adverbial
  • 6.4 Adverbs
  • 6.4.1 Adverb of degree
  • 6.4.2 Adverbs of negation
  • 6.4.3 Adverb of time
  • 6.4.4 Adverb of scope
  • 6.4.5 Adverb of manner
  • 6.5 Linking adverbs
  • 7. Clause Types and Other Syntactic Issues
  • 7.1 Simple sentence
  • 7.1.1 Subject + predicate
  • 7.1.2 Subjectless clause
  • 7.2 Complex sentence
  • 7.2.1 Coordinate compound sentence
  • 7.2.2 Sequential compound sentence
  • 7.2.3 Alternative compound sentence
  • 7.2.4 Forward-linking
  • 7.2.5 Compound sentences linked by disjunctives
  • 7.2.6 Temporal clause
  • 7.2.7 Conditional clause
  • 7.2.8 Hypothetical clause
  • 7.2.9 Cause-result clause
  • 7.2.10 Purpose clause
  • 7.3 Possessive/presentative sentence
  • 7.4 Copula clause
  • 7.5 Passive construction
  • 7.6 The disposal construction
  • 7.7 Double object construction
  • 7.8 Topic-comment sentence
  • 7.8.1 Unmarked topic-comment sentence
  • 7.8.2 Marked topic sentence
  • 7.9 Negation
  • 7.9.1 The V-Neg construction
  • 7.9.2 Discontinuous negation
  • 7.10 Declaratives
  • 7.10.1 Affirmative declaratives
  • 7.10.2 Negative declaratives
  • 7.11 Interrogatives
  • 7.11.1 General questions
  • 7.11.2 Special questions
  • 7.11.3 Polar questions
  • 7.11.4 A-not-A question
  • 7.12 Imperative and command
  • 7.12.1 Affirmative imperatives
  • 7.12.2 Negative imperative
  • 7.13 Exclamative sentences
  • 8. Discourse Particles
  • 8.1 Clause-initial particles
  • 8.2 Clause-medial particles
  • 8.3 Clause-final particles
  • 8.4 Co-occurrence of discourse particles
  • 8.5 Co-occurrence of structural and discourse particles
  • 8.6 Summary of chapter
  • Bibliography
  • Lexicon
  • Appendix
  • Zoulei Texts
  • 1. Brother and Sister Got Married (The Creation of Heaven and Earth)
  • 2. The Zoulei Love to Play the Uva Flute
  • 3. Tiger and Buffalo Fighting
  • 4. The Peach Girl Helps to Recall the Soul
  • 5. Two Close Friends
  • 6. Song of Drinking Game
  • Index of authors, languages and subjects

Acknowledgements and Prefatory Note

This book is a substantially revised and expanded version of a PhD dissertation, “A Reference Grammar of Bigong Gelao”, by Li Xia under the supervision of Li Jinfang, Minzu University of China in 2009.

This study is part of a large project, “Documentation of Two Gelao Varieties: Zoulei and Ahou”. The authors would like to particularly acknowledge the generous funding support awarded to Li Jinfang and his team at the Minzu University from the Endangered Language Documentation Project funded by the Lisbet Rausing Charitable Fund to the University of London. Financial assistance for revision and final production of the monograph comes from three institutions: The Programme of Chinese Language and Literature of Hubei University, Minzu University of China, and the University of Melbourne. To these institutions we would like to record our appreciation for their support.

Materials for this study are the result of collective efforts. They were gathered at different stages over a period of nearly a decade. The first set of data was collected by Li Jinfang and his team—a group of completing MA students—on a field trip between July and August 2003. The second set of data was collected between September 2006 and November 2007 by Li Jinfang, Liu Lijian, Wu Yaping, He Yancheng, and Li Xia on three separate field trips lasting 8 months, all funded by ELDP, with Luo Yongxian as academic consultant. We wish to express our thanks to all the team members. Last, but not least, we are grateful to three Zoulei elders for sharing with us their beautiful language and culture: Mrs Chen Dengzhen and Chen Dengfen, who are sisters and who are able to sing Gelao songs and tell folk stories; and Mr Pan Qiwu, ritual master of the local Gelao community. Without their unfailing support this project would not have been possible.

We owe a special debt of gratitude to Tony Diller, who read a draft of the book and made constructive comments, and to Bob Dixon and Sasha Aikhenvald for their support.

Dr Tianqiao Lu helped produce the map.

← XI | XII → ← XII | XIII →


Atransitive subject
COMPLcompletive, completion
DISPdisposal, object marker
DOdirect object
EXCLexclamation, exclamatives
IOindirect object
MODmodal, modality
NEGnegator, negation
NUMnumber, numeral
REPETrepetitive, iterative
Ssubject of an intransitive verb
1first person
2second person
3third person

← XIII | XIV → ← XIV | XV →

Tables, maps and diagrams

MapZoulei speaking area in Guizhou
Table 2.1Zoulei initial consonants
Table 2.2Zoulei vowels
Table 2.3Zoulei tones
Table 2.4Zoulei syllable structure
Table 4.1Personal pronouns
Table 4.2Possessive pronominal forms
Table 4.3Demonstrative pronouns
Table 4.4Deictic words
Table 4.5Indefinite pronouns
Table 4.6Interrogative pronouns
Table 5.1Negators

← XV | XVI → ← XVI | 1 →

1. Introduction

1.1 The language and its speakers

Zoulei is an endangered Gelao variety spoken in southwestern Guizhou Province. The variety described here is in the Ahou dialect group and is spoken in the Bigong village in Dingqi Township of Zhenning Buyi and Miao Autonomous County, which is under the administration of the City of Anshun (贵州省安顺市镇宁县丁旗镇比工自然村) (see Map on next page). This administrative village lies in the border area between Zhenning County and the Liuzhi Special District (六枝特区),and is made up of three smaller natural villages. Zoulei (local pronunciation: zəɯ13 (person, i.e. the Gelao) + ɭei31 (red ‘Red Gelao’) is the self-designation of this group of Gelao, while Bigong Gelao (比工仡佬) is a neonym. In this study, Zoulei and Bigong Gelao are used interchangeably to refer to this variety.

Gelao (仡佬族) is officially recognized as one of the 56 ethnic groups by the Chinese government.

1.1.1 Population, internal division and distribution

According to the 2000 government census, there are about 500 thousand speakers in China who identify themselves or are identified as Gelao. Several hundred are reported to have been found in Vietnam.

Gelao may be divided into four dialect groups: Hao (稿), Ahou (阿欧), Hakei (哈给) and Tuoluo (多罗) according to their self-designations. There are striking dialect differences between these groups, which result in mutual unintelligibility. Of these, Ahou has the smallest number of speakers.1 Ahou may further be divided into 3 varieties or ← 1 | 2 → vernaculars: Bigong (比工), Hongfeng (红丰) and Jianshan (箭山). This study focuses on the Bigong or Zoulei variety spoken in Bigong village.


Map 1: Zoulei speaking area in Guizhou

Apart from in Bigong village, Zoulei is also spoken in the adjacent village of Maocaozhai (茅草寨 Thatch Village), where the language is identical. Groups whose self-designation is Zoulei or Red Gelao have reportedly been found in Pudi (普底) Township of Dafang (大方) County, in Pingzheng (平正) Township of Zunyi (遵义) County, in Banliwan (板栗湾) Township of Renhuai (仁怀) County, and in Malipo (麻栗坡) ← 2 | 3 → of Yunnan Province and in Hakong, Vietnam.2 But there are significant differences between these groups. Their internal relationship remains to be investigated. So far, no writing system has been found for Gelao.

Gelao may have a much wider distribution in early history (see §1.2.3). Currently Gelao speakers are mainly distributed in Guizhou and the adjacent provinces of Sichuan, Hunan, Guangxi and Yunnan, with a few spillovers into north Vietname on the Sino-Vietnamese borderland, who may have moved from Guizhou several hundred years ago.

1.1.2 Linguistic type and affiliation

A subdialect of the Ahou dialect of Gelao, Zoulei belongs to the Geyang branch of the Tai-Kadai language family of languages. It is a typical isolating and analytic language with basic SVO constituent order. Typologically, it possesses a rich phoneme inventory, lexical tone, strong left-headedness in constituent structure, multi-verb constructions, among others. The word can be said to be typically monosyllabic, particularly for verbs, but there is a great deal of compounding which is clearly not syntactic in nature. Compounds are mainly nouns. Often, the semantics of the whole compound are not straightforwardly analyzable from the known semantics of the constituent morphemes. A rich system of reduplicative derivation constitutes a morpho-phonological process with expressive function. Quite a few items are used as morpho-syntactic markers with restricted syntactic behaviour; these are often derived from full lexical items (mostly verbs). Homophones are plentiful. A significant number of four-syllable elaborate expressions form an important part of Zoulei lexicon which is also enriched by different layers of Chinese loans, as well as a small number of loans from Yi and Miao.

The ‘subject’ is operated on an S/A pivot. Like many other Tai-Kadai languages, movement, ellipses, and S=O ambitransitivity are characteristic of Zoulei syntax. ‘Movement’ of core arguments based on their discourse status is very common. Classifier phrases may be separated and moved away from the head noun. Virtually any NP may be left out if reference is contextually retrievable. ← 3 | 4 →

1.2 What we know about Zoulei and Gelao

1.2.1 Geographic setting

Zhenning County, where Zoulei is spoken, is located at 25°25′19″ —26°10′32″ N and 105°35′10″—106°0′50″ E in southeast Guizhou, bordering Anshun City, with Ziyun Autonomous County to the east, Zhenfeng and Wangmo County to the south, and Liuzhi Special District and Puding County to the west. The county seat is 112 kilometres southwest of the provincial city, Guiyang, with a total area of 1709.42 square kilometres. Topographically, the county is high in the north and low in the south, with contrasting slopes. Mountains cover 1098 square kilometres and hills 157 square kilometres, which make up 63.91% and 9.19% of the total land area respectively. Over 60% of Zhenning county is covered by karst topography. The area is rich in hydraulic and mineral resources, with many karst caves, underground rivers, waterfalls and springs. The largest waterfall in Asia — the Huangguoshu Waterfall — is located in Zhenning.

Zhenneng is located in the subtropical zone, with seasonal monsoons and a rather mild climate. The hot season is often accompanied by rain. There is quite a sharp contrast in temperature between different areas. Temperatures tend to get higher from the north to the south where elevation is lower. But rainfall shows the opposite pattern, with the south having less rainfall than the north. Average annual daily temperature is 16.2, with the coldest month (January) down to 6.5 and the hottest month (July) up to 23.7. Annual frost-free period is 297–345 days, and average annual rainfall 1277 millimetres.

Zhenning County has quite a long history. In ancient times, it was within the territory of the Yelang State, a political entity which was essentially an alliance of tribes rather than a conventional state. Zhenning got its name in the Yuan dynasty, having undergone further development in subsequent government. Zhenning Buyi and Miao Autonomous County was established on 11 September 1963. A multi-ethic county, it administers 15 townships, with a total population of 350,000 people, over 60% of whom are Buyi (Bouyei) and Miao (Hmong).

Dingqi township, under whose administration Bigong village falls, is located in the northern part of the county bordering Liuzhi, Puding and ← 4 | 5 → Anshun, with a total area of 115 square kilometres. There are 112 natural villages forming 51 administrative villages in Dingqi, totalling over 40,000 residents from Han, Buyi, Miao and Gelao ethnic backgrounds. The township is blessed with a mild climate, and fertile land, linked with good transportation. This area has rich mineral resources, with coal deposits of 2.2 billion tons. Four coal mines west of the township are under construction, with an annual output of 450 thousand tons. There is the Guijiahu Reservoir to the east, with a capacity of 30 million cubic metres. Power is supplied through two power lines, one from Anshun and the other from Zhenning. Cash crops include watermelon, peanuts, radish and ginger, as well as tomatoes, chillies and sweetcorn. Animal husbandry mainly comprises crossbred cattle and pigs. Economy of scale includes wine-making, oil production, rice-milling and toufu making. 3

Bigong village has 328.8 mu of nominal arable land (one mu = 0.0666 hectare), an average of 0.48 mu per person. Of these, only 215 mu is actually arable. Staple crops include paddy rice, corn, and potatoes. Cash crops include ginger, peanuts, sunflowers, sweet potatoes, and tea. Animal husbandry is made up of cattle and horse breeding, as well as chicken and dogs. The area is occasionally hit by hail between April and June, and by heavy snow in winter twice or three times a year. The highest temperature in summer can reach 36. Floods mainly occur in the rainy season in summer.

The administrative village of Bigong is made up of three natural villages: Sankuaitian, Zhangjiazhai and Bigong. The first two villages are made up mainly of Han, and are located at the foot of the hill. Bigong, where Zoulei is spoken, is located half way up the mountain, surrounded by mountains and forests. A new ‘Bigong Village’ is being formed as more and more people are beginning to build their houses near the primary school at the foot of the hill. One of the nearby villages, Maocaozhai, is also inhabited by Gelao, who speak the same language as Bigong. Other adjacent villages are mainly Han, Buyi and Miao villages. ← 5 | 6 →

1.2.2 Customs

There are two very important traditional festivals in Zoulei: The Divine Tree Festival on the third of March and the New Season Festival on the seventh of July of the lunar calendar. Of the two, the former is the most important. In the New Season Festival, the whole village is closed off for three days. No one is allowed to go in, nor is anyone allowed to go out during these three days. The Spring Festival celebrated by the Han Chinese is also becoming an important festival for the Gelao. Other festivals include: the fifth of May, the sixth of June where village rules and regulations are to be set up, the fourteenth of July when sacrifice is offered to the ancestor, and the first of October when the Buffalo king is to be worshiped.

The following family names are especially common among Zoulei speakers: Chen, Lei, Wang, Li, Shang, Gao and Xie, among others. Of these, the Wang clan is claimed to have come from Ji’an of Jiangxi Province. Many Zoulei families believe in Buddhism and Taoism. They invite Taoist masters to perform rituals as for the deceased. Wedding and funeral customs are very much the same as the Han Chinese. In the old days, Gelao women are said to have worn skirts, but nowadays, very few women still keep that custom. Zoulei people like to eat spicy food. Chicken is often offered as delicacies to important guests. Before winter arrives, dogs are slaughtered for consumption as their meat is believed to be very nourishing and capable of keeping the human body warm.


XVI, 421
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
dialect culture phonology history
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 421 pp.

Biographical notes

Xia Li (Author) Jinfang Li (Author) Yongxian Luo (Author)

Xia Li is a lecturer at Hubei University, China. She holds a PhD from Minzu University of China. Jinfang Li is a professor at Minzu University of China. He is the author of 7 books and several dozen journal articles and book chapters on Tai-Kadai. Yongxian Luo is an associate professor at the University of Melbourne. He is the author and editor of 5 books and several dozen articles and book chapters.


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